Tunisia renewed its vows to democracy on May 6, successfully holding its first free and fair elections of its town councils across the country since the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, despite a crippling economic crisis and a slow pace of reforms. While municipal elections were the first step in Tunisia’s path toward decentralization, they were marred with hasty procedures and harsh electoral campaign conditions, which contributed to the low turnout. Later in May, in a period of a new political crisis in Tunisia, the election results of Mdhila, a small town in the south, were finally announced after being postponed as a result of major abuses of electoral rules during voting day. Following the municipal elections, Tunisia was widely praised for this essential democracy benchmark. However, the process of decentralization is more complex and does not stop at the elections, but rather depends on how municipal councils will be managed in the long run, the sustainability of funding, and role of the international community.
The Growing Influence of Independent Lists
The victory of independent lists with 32.2 percent of votes turned the tables on the two dominant parties in Tunisia—the modern Islamist party Ennahda, which won 28.6 percent and Nidaa Tunis party, which won 20.8 percent. The vote results demonstrate public disenchantment and dissatisfaction with the performance of these two parties, which are increasingly seen as disconnected from the daily struggles of citizens and demands of the revolution. The results also demonstrate the need to create a political alternative based a clear political agenda and reform plan that directly improves the lives of citizens, who, since the revolution and under the recurrent governments, had lost trust in state institutions.
While the influence of these winning independent lists in each region will depend on the dynamics of their evolution and whether they will bring tangible improvements to their areas, certain lists captured greater attention and could be seen a new alternative that could change the current polarized political scene in the country. Al-Afdhal, an electoral list of constitutional law expert Fadhel Moussa, captured the attention of media after winning most of the seats in Ariana municipality. Another independent list that has a potential for positive influence is Elmarsa Tetbadel, represented by Dr. Slim Meherzi, whose list won first place with 11 seats—nearly a third of the total—in La Marsa, a suburb in Tunis. Some so-called independent candidates were also criticized for falsely joining independent lists despite still having allegiances to their original parties, namely Ennahda or Nidaa Tunis.
Only 10 days before the elections, a 392-article code for local authorities was adopted by parliament. The code essentially defines the role and prerogatives of local councils and grants them administrative and financial independence. The rapid adoption of the code gave parties insufficient time to spread public awareness on the new law’s effect on current municipal elections, and prevented them from conducting efficient campaigning to attract potential voters.
The Higher Authority for Audiovisual Communication’s extensive and vague electoral media campaigning rules contributed to the lack of advertising during the campaign and the overall low turnout of the elections. Heavy sanctions for media institutions were imposed in case the rules were not respected, making media super cautious during the campaign period. The authority’s relatively low limit for campaign budgets prevented some from reaching wider audiences across the country.
Violations of electoral law occurred during the election period, although they did not significantly influence the results. According to the nongovernmental organization Mourakiboun, verbal and physical violence were noted between members of political parties near the voting polls across the country. Some political party members were present in proximity to the voting polls and tried to influence voters. Other abuses included breaking the electoral silence one day prior to the election day, on which all campaigning is forbidden.
New, Inclusive Leadership
Regardless of the results, the diversity of candidates was one of the major highlights of the new municipal elections. Electoral lists alternated between male and female candidates. Parties were also required to have at least three young people in each list and a person with disabilities among the first 10 candidates of each electoral list. Female candidates won 45 percent of total municipal seats, while 52 percent of candidates were under age 35, which was a direct result of election law quotas and principles of nondiscrimination guaranteed in the constitution. The election law provides an important quota that favors the participation of women, youth, and people with disabilities.
Despite the inclusion of youth on the electoral lists, participation among young people was not high, especially among those between 18 and 21 years old. According to figures in February, less than a quarter of them were registered on the voters lists. Although these elections are an important benchmark for Tunisia’s democracy, they are not seen as a milestone in the eyes of Tunisian youth, many of whom have lost hope, and whose employment and austerity concerns went unaddressed in an environment of economic crisis. Voting is a democratic right, but they do not see its implications on their demands and daily struggles. Political elites’ disconnection from their concerns, in addition to an environment in which justice and accountability were rarely achieved, further estranged Tunisian youth.
Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party, which had a plurality in parliament before losing a fifth of its seats in 2014, presented itself as a modern, diverse party, in line with its attempts to distance itself from political Islam. The party included a Jewish man on its list for the municipality of Monastir—which stirred controversy from several other political parties—and ran an unveiled woman in Sidbousaid, a suburb of Tunis. A picture, stamped with the Ennahda emblem, of the blonde-haired candidate in ripped jeans garnered attention on social media. Ennahda’s new political vision is perceived by some as a misleading attempt to manipulate voters who were disappointed by the party’s tolerance for extremist groups and Salafists during the period of its rule.
Implications for Further Reform
Tunisia enjoyed peaceful and unprecedented inclusive elections after long delays and uncertainty following recurrent terrorist attacks that have targeted the country since 2015. This historical event remains an essential benchmark through which Tunisia, often described as the only success story of the Arab Spring, proved once again to the world that it can be a stable and sustainable democracy—an exception in a turbulent region. However, Tunisia still suffers from remnants of the old regime, including inconsistent legislation, broken public institutions, rampant corruption, and an economic crisis.
The pace of reform had been slow and subject to pressure from the political elites who enjoyed more authority. Therefore, the international community should continue to watch Tunisia’s unique, young democracy—because despite meeting specific benchmarks, it remains fragile. International actors’ support to this democracy and its complex reform pillars is fundamental for it progress and stability. The municipal elections are the first step toward decentralization; however, elections alone cannot achieve effective local, decentralized governance.
International actors should remain involved and address the lack of financial resources in municipalities across the country, which is a major hurdle to the transfer of power at the local level. It should engage with local communities by providing funding and expertise with projects to reinforce transparency, the efficiency of public local institutions, and social accountability. The elections are only the start of a complex decentralization process, which cannot be achieved, given the current circumstances, without the help of an active civil society and support of international community.